ANIMAL ART OF THE DAY for Manatee Appreciation Day: Joseph Wolf’s Misidentified Manatee Illustration

Happy Manatee Appreciation Day!

As seen above, there are three officially recognized manatee species, all currently listed as Vulnerable by the IUCN Red List. Today’s Animal Art of the Day is a 19th century illustration which was first identified as one, then identified as another, and finally correctly identified as the third!

1. original watercolor by Joseph Wolf (German, 1820-1899) for ZSL, 1879 [via ZSL Library]
2. published version, Plate 7 in Biologia Centrali-Americana: Mammalia, 1879-1882 [via BHL]

More info about the artwork:

Watercolour on paper, in window mount ; art – 35 x 27 cm., mount – 57.5 x 44.5 cm.
Signed by artist in black paint in lower right corner: ‘J. Wolf. 1879’.
Mss title in ink and pencil, in unidentified handwriting, on label pasted on mount: ‘Manatee (Manatus americanus) from a specimen living in the Westminster Aquarium 1879. See PZS 1879’.

So, Wolf’s note identifies his model as Manatus americanus, now Trichechus manatus – the West Indian Manatee, aka North American Manatee or American Manatee. Then, the illustration was published as Manatus australis, now Trichechus inunguis – the Amazonian Manatee. However, given where the aquarium’s specimen was captured, it was most likely the third living manatee species, Trichechus senegalensis – the West African Manatee aka African Manatee:

According to the caption the painting was made of an animal living in Westminster Aquarium. A manatee – said to be Manatus americanus – was living in the Westminster Aquarium in 1879 and a note about it by Dr James Murie was published in ‘PZS’ 1879 : 552. This refers to Murie’s forthcoming paper on that manatee based on observations of the great mobility of the upper lip and use of the limbs in feeding when it was living in the Aquarium and brain structure (after it died). This paper was published : Murie, J. (1880) ‘Further observations on the manatee’, ‘TZS’ 11 : 19-48 5 pls (by C. Berjeau). On p. 21-23 Murie states the adult female manatee was caught in a net on the Dauntless Bank, off the Island of Lequana, near the mouth of the Essiquibo River, British Guiana, taken to London and purchased by the Aquarium in June 1878. It died on 15 March 1879. Wolf’s painting is [therefore] presumably of the West African manatee, Trichechus senegalensis.

ZSL Library Catalog

???? Manatee, likely West African Manatee (Trichechus senegalensis); also in the background, Kingfisher, likely Giant Kingfisher (Megaceryle maxima)

sharing is caring:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

3 × five =